How to Brine a Turkey
Planning your Thanksgiving meal leaves you with a lot of choices. Which sides to serve; how much wine to get for the table; to pie or not to pie. (The answer is always yes.) While we can’t figure out your entire day for you, we can help out with the menu and share some advice. And in this case, we’re diving into how to brine a turkey.
You might be wondering why you’d want to brine a turkey in the first place, as not all recipes call for it. One key reason is the taste—whether you wet-brine or dry-brine, using all! that! salt! infuses the bird with flavor, giving it an extra boost before you add any spices or aromatics. It also helps the meat retain its moisture and can help you avoid over-cooking, our associate food editor Kelsey Youngman explains.
“Probably the number one fear people have with turkeys on Thanksgiving is dry meat, aside from undercooking it,” she says. “And a brine is a really great way, even if you go a few degrees over your desired cooking temperature, if you forget the turkey in the oven for some reason [to help avoid over-cooking]. You have a much greater range where you’re still going to have moist, delicious meat because that salt is in there.”
Preventing a dry turkey definitely sounds worth it, right? We think so, too. So we tapped Youngman to share her tips for turkey brining and created a helpful guide for everything you need to know about the process, from picking out a turkey at the store (hint: avoid salt-processed ones) to pulling off both wet and dry brines. She also provides suggestions for adding even more flavor to the bird post-brining, and has a helpful day-of tip from our culinary director-at-large, Justin Chapple, if you don’t have time to brine. Keep reading for her advice.
Choose Your Turkey
Before you get to cooking your turkey, you’ll need to pick one out in the first place—and if you’re brining, the kind of turkey you choose matters. Youngman recommends using a heritage or organic turkey and avoiding kosher, self-basting, and water-added turkeys, since they’ve been infused with salt already. “Kind of think about it like salted or unsalted butter,” she says. “It’s not bad that those turkeys are processed with salt, but you have no way of knowing how salty they are before you cook them.” Using a heritage or organic turkey, on the other hand, allows you to control how much salt you add to the bird. For more tips, read our buying guide to the best turkeys.
Speaking of Salt, Stick to This Salt-to-Meat Ratio
Whether you’re dry brining or wet brining, Youngman says you’ll want to use “about a little over a tablespoon of kosher salt to about four pounds of turkey.” For a traditional 12- to 14-pound bird, she recommends about 3 1/2 tablespoons of kosher salt. Make sure to use Diamond Crystal kosher salt rather than another variety of kosher salt (or table salt)—since the size of salt crystals vary, the saltiness of a spoonful of salt varies too.
How Long to Brine a Turkey
Youngman says you’ll want to brine the turkey a few days in advance, before cooking. While you can brine it overnight, “two to three days is kind of the sweet spot of flavor.”
How to Wet Brine a Turkey
To wet brine, Youngman says you’ll need “either a cooler or a really big fridge,” since you’ll have to contain the turkey, keep it fully submerged in the brine, and keep it cold and covered. A clean, food-safe five- to eight-gallon bucket should be big enough to contain it, she says—use one with a “smooth plastic interior,” so it’s easy to clean. Or, try a Cambro container, which can be found at restaurant supply stores. A Yeti cooler could work as well.
Whichever you choose, fill your container with water and the salt. To help the dissolution process along, you could warm some of the water separately first and dissolve the salt in there (the warm water will help the salt "dissolve more readily," Youngman says) before adding that mixture to the rest of the cool water. But it’s not necessary. If you do go that route, be sure the water is cold when you put the turkey in; adding it to hot water would lead to food-safety issues.
Brining is all about science. “The main process going on when you’re brining is that salt pulls moisture out of the meat and then replaces it with the brine in osmosis, essentially,” Youngman says. “So there’s already moisture in the meat, and you’re just kind of swapping it for the salty liquid to add flavor, [and] retain juiciness and tenderness in the meat.”
Make sure there’s enough water so that the turkey is fully submerged (Youngman says you can ensure this by weighing it down with a plate or another heavy object). The most important components are the salt and the water, but if you’d like, Youngman says you can also feel free to add spices and seasonings like peppercorns, bay leaves, thyme, or sage at this point. However, she points out that “it’s not really where the major flavor is going to come in”—those accoutrements won’t really infuse in the cold water—and recommends waiting to add additional flavor until after the brining process is complete, before roasting. Cover the turkey and keep it cold, whether you’re storing it in a container in the fridge or brining it in a cooler kept cold.
Try This Recipe: Roasted Salt-Brined Turkey
How to Dry Brine a Turkey
Dry-brining, on the other hand, is essentially wet-brining minus the water and container—instead of mixing the salt into water, you’re rubbing it directly onto the bird. Youngman prefers dry-brining, since she thinks it’s easier, takes up less space, and “results in a tastier end product.” Bonus: it can help you achieve that ultra-crispy skin.
You’ll need a large rimmed baking sheet, a wire rack, and something to cover the bird: Either cheesecloth, flour sack towels, plastic wrap, or even a turkey-sized oven bag to cover the bird. Just like with wet-brining, the turkey needs to be kept cold, but thankfully, a salt-covered turkey won’t take up as much room in your refrigerator as a large container filled with water and turkey.
To start, grab your salt and rub it on and under the skin of the turkey, as well as inside the cavity. Getting it under the skin, Youngman says, will help permeate the meat and flavor it, while salting on top of the skin will help dry it out and get it crispy. You could theoretically rub on spices and seasonings at this point, too, but again, your best bet is waiting until after you’ve brined the turkey.
Once the turkey is seasoned, place it on the rack set inside the rimmed baking sheet and put it in the refrigerator. Youngman likes to cover it for the first part of the brining period (“that’s going to trap the salt to the bird”) and then uncover it the night before to help dry out the skin.
“I just can’t recommend dry brining enough,” Youngman says. “I think it’s more effective, tastier, easier, and it’s just better.”
Try This Recipe: Dry-Brined Spatchcocked Turkey
Let It Come to Temperature
Your bird is going to be cold post-brining, and you need to let it come to room temperature before you roast it, Youngman says. Otherwise, the turkey won’t cook as quickly or evenly as it could. Youngman recommends removing the turkey from the refrigerator about an hour before cooking.
Pat It Dry
Regardless of which brining method you use, you’ll also want to pat your bird dry, since it will be wet. Use paper towels and get the skin “as dry as possible” before doing anything else. And if you’re wondering, no—you don’t need to rinse the bird, whether it’s been dry-brined or wet-brined, before adding more seasoning and roasting. Again, the bird needs to be dry, and Youngman also notes “it’s not particularly sanitary to wash meat in the sink.”
Adding Another Layer of Flavor
Once your bird is brined and patted dry, you’re all set to add more flavor, and there are plenty of ways to do it. You could roughly chop up aromatics like carrots, celery, and onions and place them in the pan under the bird while it roasts, which would not only flavor the turkey, but the pan juices as well, giving your gravy a boost. Plus, placing the turkey on top of the cut-up aromatics helps the hot air circulate around it, Youngman says, and helps it cook evenly. The same can be done with cut-up pieces of citrus, heads of garlic, other alliums like shallots or leeks, and sprigs of herbs too.
Another route includes creating an aromatic butter by mixing butter with herbs, spices, and/or citrus zest—Youngman says she loves taking sage, thyme, and oregano, chopping them up, and mashing them with butter to create an herb butter. (She uses two tablespoons of room-temperature butter for a 12-14 pound bird, rubbing the flavored butter on and under the skin of the dried-off turkey before cooking.) Or, simply rub the spices and herbs directly onto the bird. If you have a favorite spice blend, you can feel free to rub it on or mix it with butter. Just avoid adding more salt, she notes, since you already salted the bird during the brining process.
No Time to Brine? Grab Mayo
Youngman says that if you’re pressed for time day-of and don’t have time to brine in advance, mayonnaise is a good option, since it will “add salt and flavor, add fat, and insulate the bird, making it super moist and juicy.” It’s a tip Justin Chapple uses in his recipe and accompanying how-to video for slathering turkey with chipotle mayonnaise under and over the skin, resulting in “super-juicy, delicious meat.” The dish is one of several that made it onto our mayo-centric Thanksgiving menu, in case you’re a big fan of the condiment like we are.
In short, whether you dry-brine, wet-brine, or rely on a last-minute coating of mayo, taking these steps will help ensure your bird comes out of the oven juicy, crispy, and ready to impress. We’ve included a few links to turkey recipes above, but you can find many, many more, ranging from Justin Chapple’s clementine-and-garlic roast turkey to Kristen Kish’s vinegar-brined roast turkey, in our best Thanksgiving turkey recipe roundup. Happy cooking!